Packrafting the Mackenzies: A 300-mile traverse in Canada's Yukon and Northwest Territories
Why Packraft the Mackenzies?: The Mackenzie Mountains are one of North America's great wild places. As the dividing range between two of the continent's biggest watersheds (the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers), there are dozens of potential ways to traverse this area with a packraft. Many of the lower sections of these rivers are know as classic Canadian canoe routes, while many of the tributaries upstream have received little attention from paddlers due to their difficult access, low volume, and steeper gradient. The stunning geology of the Mackenzies lends itself to many broad valleys punctuated by deep, twisting canyons where the river is forced to descend through layers of limestone. This makes for both beautiful sections of runnable whitewater as well as many awe inspiring canyons that will likely remain a mystery.
2023 Mackenzie Traverse Map:
Route Disclaimer: The included route map is just one way to connect the dots in the Northern Mackenzies. I often vacillate on what level of information sharing is worthwhile after a trip like this. Why share in the first place? Many people have amazing adventures in the wilderness without spraying about it on the internet. For me, this "trip-report" format has been an outlet to share my photos and an opportunity to process my experiences. Knowing that many of my adventures have been inspired by write-ups I have stumbled across on the internet, I feel that, on some level, I want to return the favor and hopefully promote further creativity in how packrafts can help us reach remote corners of this world. This report is not written to endorse or popularize a specific route but more as an ode to a spectacular range. Hopefully these photos serve as inspiration for others' adventures into the Mackenzies and provide a representation of what the range has to offer from a packrafter's perspective.
As always, the information shared on this site is only as good as those using it and that feels like an necessary disclaimer with this route in particular. The above representation is not a bread crumb trail and it does not include any information about each hazard or portage along the way (of which there are many). Those who would like to undertake a trip of this nature should have a skill set that includes the trip planning, risk management, first aid and paddling skills that would make the inclusion of portage and hazard information here superfluous. There are many other interesting looking sections of river in this range, and Macmillan Pass serves as a great starting point for trips departing in any given direction. While we enjoyed this route, there is no shortage of beautiful whitewater we missed. That is the nature of a trip scouted from space.
Much of the Mackenzie Range is the ancestral and current home of the Sahtu Dene people. While trips to this region might feel remote or exploratory, it is important to remember that people have been traveling and living in these mountains long before planes or packrafts.
The Rivers: The character and the difficulty of a river trip of this length are hard to describe or quantify. We had zero information about any of these sections prior to starting this trip. We felt confident undertaking this trip thanks to both our collective experience with routes of similar length and remoteness as well as extensive satellite scouting. While the whitewater we ran rarely exceed lite class IV, there are many dangerous section of river. On multiple occasions we caught eddies just above class V-VI sections of box canyon in which in which a mis-step would be life threatening or fatal. This disclaimer is not intended to inflate the difficulty of this route, but to suggest that those interested in a long wilderness traverse will find other routes with easier logistics and less consequence. While most of this route is class I-III in nature, it is best suited for groups with class IV paddling and portaging skills as well as extensive wilderness backpacking experience. Some of the photos below highlight the wide range of scenery, whitewater and geology we encountered.
The Hiking: While there is every type of terrain in the Mackenzies, we were delighted to find that much of the hiking along our route was alpine tundra walking. While that is most definitely a poor characterization of the range as a whole, our positive ratio of tundra cruising to bushwhack wallowing was likely do to the geography our route staying close to the spine of the range. This benefited us from a packrafter's perspective because we could descend to either basin easily to take advantage of rivers flowing in our favor. It also meant we we usually approached rivers from the alpine headwaters and typically inflated our boats before we encountered much vegetation. Once we descended lower into each drainage, there was usually some short sections of alder, willow, or dwarf birch before we were back to easy walking. Much of the time we had success finding game trails when we needed them most. If you take a look at the route map, you will notice we ended with a long paddle out. While continued link-ups are quite possible, the hiking looks less fun once below the vegetation line. That suspicion was corroborated by our portage of Gayna Canyon near the end of the trip: a very short hike but substantially "'swachkier'" than any of the other terrain we encountered.
Gayna Canyon: The last river along our route, the Gayna, might have become a destination canoe trip like the nearby Mountain River were it not for the awe inspiring class VI canyon that breaks up an otherwise class II-III section. During our satellite scouting, it was pretty clear that Ganya Canyon would be a portage for us due to it many large falls, inescapability and ridiculous gradient. In person, the scale of the canyon exceeded my expectations and just standing on the rim left me with a knot in my stomach as we watched driftwood "boaters" get surfed in some massive holes. Thankfully, just downstream of the portage is another beautiful section of canyon that offers equally stunning scenery but with class II character.
Water Levels: The timing of a trip in the Mackenzies will be very important if you are hoping to maximize your paddle to walk ratio. While the main stem rivers should be packraftable all summer, floating more of the upper tributaries may only be possible if aligned with peak run-off. We began our trip in mid-June and got lucky with our timing. While a few days of post-holing though isothemal snow had us concerned we had started a little early, ultimately it ensured that all of the small tributaries in the first half of our route were at least bank-full. Some of these sections would be unrunnable with a little less water. We felt lucky to get to paddle some cool low volume canyons and spend more time in our boats than we would have if we had arrived a few weeks later. Rivers like the Mountain, Stone Knife, and Gayna seem like they should have floatable flows all summer. Some of the photos below best illustrate the type of low volume paddling we had in the upper reaches of different Mackenzies tributaries.
Flora and Fauna: From bears to berries and from fungi to fish, the Mackenzies showcases a unspoiled northern ecosystem. A few highlights included a wolf pack around our camp, hiking with herds of caribou, and fresh fish to supplement our ration.
We used Alpine Aviation in Whitehorse to fly us in, re-ration us, and fly us out. They are accustomed to flying both kayakers and packrafters, and we found them to be safe, reliable, and easy to coordinate with via inReach. While there is a road to McMillan Pass, it seems to only be open to public vehicle traffic in late summer or fall during hunting season and it frequently washes out. We flew in on a wheeled Cesna 206 packed to the gills and hovering just around the allotted 1,000 pound payload with our first two week ration. When we flew out it was in a 206 on floats which adds to the fuel cost due to increased drag. If the water isn't too high on the Mackenzie, finding a long smooth gravel bar is a cheaper option. It was amazing to retrace much of the route from the air during the 4-hour return flight to Whitehorse.